Leadership Attribution Error

Our emphasis on leaders in academic, political and business circles has created a set of expectations of leaders that are both unrealistic and possibly negative.  I’ve written in the past about the Romance of Leadership, that is our tendency to attribute great successes and great failures to our leaders. This tendency causes us to also make assumptions about leaders’ responsibility for the motivation, behaviour and accomplishments of followers (Sronce and Arendt, 2009).

In their 2009 article, Sronce and Arendt suggest that our assumption that part of a leader’s role is to motivate followers could potentially result in followers blaming leaders if the follower isn’t motivated.  If leaders are the reason for a group’s success or failure, then could it be possible to ignore the contributions of followers to the outcome? Does our obsession with leaders mean that we are essentially reducing the accountability of followers for their performance?

Hackman and Wagner (in Sronce & Arendt 2009) refer to the tendency to believe that leaders have more impact on results than is the actual case as “Leadership Attribution Error”. They suggest that this error arises because followers don’t have the complete picture underestimating both situational factors and random chance.

Leadership Attribution Error has the potential to be a disaster in the workplace. Too much emphasis on the role of leader means that followers may abdicate responsibility for their motivation levels, beliefs, values and behaviours. Truly effective leadership is one that sees motivation as arising from within followers (internal motivation) that the leader taps into by aligning goals and objectives with motivation and values of the followers. In other words, motivation starts with the beliefs, values and aspirations of the followers.

Whether leader or follower, as adults we need to take responsibility for our own behaviours. Are you attributing too much to your leader? As a leader, are you assuming too much of the burden of motivation? Are your followers abdicating responsibility for their own motivation and behaviours? Are you creating passive followers?

Source: Scronce, Robin and Arendt, Lucy. (2009) Demonstrating the Interplay of Leaders and Followers. Journal of Management Education. 33 (6), 699 – 824.

Hackman, J.R., & Wageman, R. (2007). Asking the right questions about Leadership. American Psychologist. 62(1), 43 – 47.

4 replies »

  1. Thinking is hard work and this post has made me think. You make a great point, quite often leaders are given too much credit for success and too much blame for failure. A leader should focus on creating an environment of personal accountability where everyone feels responsible for the ultimate outcome. Then he/she should recognize individual contributors by giving them credit for success and ensuring accountability for failure. Great post, thanks.

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